A Belgium-based Egyptologist has rediscovered the oldest known Egyptian leather manuscript, dating back more than 4,000 years to late Old Kingdom and early Middle Kingdom (2300-2000 B.C.). The manuscript, which measures 8.2 feet long, had been locked up in storage at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo since shortly before the outbreak of World War II.

Wael Sherbiny, an Egyptian-born scholar trained in Belgium, announced the find at a recent meeting of the International Congress of Egyptologists. Little is known about the manuscript prior to the early 20th century, when a local archaeology institute purchased the scroll, which they later donated the Egyptian Museum, also known as the Museum of Cairo.

Covered with colorful drawings and illustrations–on both sides, for a total of more than 16 feet–depicting divine beings, and featuring spells that would have been used as incantations by priests, the scroll was likely used a portable religious text. That makes it one of only seven such manuscripts to have survived to the present day—and the only one on leather; the other six are on papyrus. While leather was considered a more prestigious material, making it the ideal choice for a religious text, it is much less durable and highly susceptible to damage from Egypt’s dry climate. In fact, the manuscript didn’t escape unscathed, and Sherbiny had to painstakingly assemble sections of the manuscript that were in tatters.

Panel from The Egyptian Book of the Dead, a later funerary text.
Panel from The Egyptian Book of the Dead, a later funerary text.

Among the illustrations on the scroll are sections of an early Egyptian funerary text or “coffin text,” known as “The Book of Two Ways,” which served as spiritual map of the underworld, with up to 100 different spells to aide the departed in the afterlife, protect them from supernatural beings and help ensure eternal life. The manuscript also features several drawings that have not been seen previously on any other known monuments. The drawings are believed to predate by 1,000 years those found in the Egyptian “Book of the Dead,” another, more famous ancient funerary text that dates from the beginning of the New Kingdom (around 1500 B.C.).

Sherbiny believes that this version of the Book of Two Ways may predate or be more an even more extant version of the Book than other examples of the text, most notably those found within coffins at an Upper Egyptian site now known as Hermopolis, and known to the Egyptians as Khemeu or “town of the eight gods.” While many Egyptologists consider the Hermopolis illustrations the creation of local priests, Sherbiny believes that the discovery of the older, more detailed Egyptian Museum manuscript indicates the opposite. As he told Discovery News, “It suggests that several segments of the composition were probably not the creation of Hermopolitan theologians, but had rather longer history of transmission before they were chosen to be used as coffin decorations.”

The newly found manuscript is a few inches longer than the previous record-holder, an 8-foot long, 2,400-year-old, prenuptial agreement, written on papyrus, which detailed the financial agreements between the families of a soon-to-be-married couple.